A nose by any other name would sound the same, study finds

Credit: Paul Brennan/public domain

In a study that shatters a cornerstone concept in linguistics, an analysis of nearly two-thirds of the world's languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they're speaking. Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research demonstrates a robust statistical relationship between certain basic concepts—from body parts to familial relationships and aspects of the natural world—and the sounds humans around the world use to describe them.

"These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of lineage," said Morten H. Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of Cornell's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. "There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns. We don't know what it is, but we know it's there."

For example, in most languages, the word for "nose" is likely to include the sounds "neh" or the "oo" sound, as in "ooze." The word for "tongue" is likely to have "l" (as in "langue" in French). "Leaf" is likely to include the sounds "b," "p" or "l." "Sand" will probably use the sound "s." The words for "red" and "round" are likely to include the "r" sound. "It doesn't mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we'd expect by chance," Christiansen said.

The associations were particularly strong for words that described body parts. "We didn't quite expect that," he said.The team also found certain words are likely to avoid certain sounds. This was especially true for pronouns. For example, words for "I" are unlikely to include sounds involving u, p, b, t, s, r and l. "You" is unlikely to include sounds involving u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l.

Christiansen, a cognitive scientist who studies language, and a team of physicists, linguists and computer scientists from Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analyzed 40-100 basic vocabulary words in 62 percent of the world's more than 6,000 current languages and 85 percent of its linguistic lineages.

The words included pronouns, body parts and properties (small, full), verbs that describe motion and nouns that describe natural phenomena (star, fish).

They found a considerable proportion of the 100 basic vocabulary words have a strong association with specific kinds of human speech sounds. The study's results are conservative; the actual number of sound symbolism patterns may in fact be even greater, Christiansen said: "We wanted to show findings that we can really stand behind."

The findings challenge one of the most basic concepts in linguistics: the century-old idea that the relationship between a sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary.

In the past 20 years, language scientists have seen glimmers of evidence that arbitrariness isn't necessarily an iron-clad rule. For example, studies have shown words for small objects in a variety of languages are likely to contain high-pitched sounds.

But until now, the research has looked only at specific word/sound relationships or small sets of languages. "People haven't been able to show whether sound symbolism is really something more pervasive throughout languages all over the world," Christiansen said. "And this is the first time anyone has been able to show that at such a scale."

The researchers don't know why humans tend to use the same sounds across languages to describe basic objects and ideas. But Christiansen notes these concepts are important in all languages, and children are likely to learn these early in life."Perhaps these signals help nudge kids into acquiring language," Christiansen said. "Likely it has something to do with the human mind or brain, our ways of interacting, or signals we use when we learn or process language. That's a key question for future research."

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Study: Word sounds contain clues for language learners

More information: Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1605782113
Provided by Cornell University
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Sep 12, 2016
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Sep 12, 2016
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Sep 12, 2016
did they also find out that words are likely to include at least one vowel?

Sep 12, 2016
also let's take a look at basque, shall we?

nose – sudur
tongue – mihi
leaf – hosto
sand – harea
red – gorri
round – biribil
star – izar
fish – arrain
I – ni
you (sg.) – zu

Well they got the "r" thing in "red" and "round" correct...

I think they suffer from bias in sample. One should give more weight to isolate languages in a study like that. If they included 62% of world's languages, this means the overwhelming majority of those languages is probably from four or five large language families. Especially striking for personal pronouns, as those are very basal in the vocabulary.

Sep 12, 2016
So the Finns and the Basque are aliens, everyone knows that.

Other than that..... Meh is Meh everywhere.

Sep 13, 2016
All languages have common origins from man's exodus out of Africa. It would make no sense for the people to arbitrarily change vocabulary along the way, but rather for the words to evolve.

The most used words like for shape and body parts would evolve the slowest because there's a constant need for them and they must remain intelligible between generations.

Linguistics is one of the sciences where a lot of researchers are leftists and abhor any evolutionary or biological explaination of phenomena, because they've set out to prove that human features are determined socially and can be changed on a whim.

Sep 13, 2016
A first! Everybody agrees..
These conclusions are bullshit

Sep 13, 2016
Nose is Mukku- Moogu
It's a statistical relationship. Counterexamples are not evidence against that.
All languages have common origins from man's exodus out of Africa.
And all known life forms have a common ancestor. That doesn't prove that the distribution of a particular trait is best explained by descent.
From the paper:
If signals are inherited from an ancestral language spoken in remote prehistory, we might expect them to be distributed similarly to inherited, cognate words; that
is, their distribution should to a large extent be congruent with the nodes defining their linguistic phylogeny.
A direct evaluation of this hypothesis is infeasible due to the absence of etymological dictionaries for all but a few families. However, it can be tested indirectly given that cognate words are expected to be more similar to one another than noncognates.


Sep 13, 2016
Ideally, a proper phylogenetic test in the context of language history would comprise some kind of data carrying a phylogenetic signal (like cognate sets or collections of regular sound changes) and a sound evolutionary model that would lead to a tree or a distribution of trees. Unfortunately, such trees exist for only a handful of language families (57, 58). Instead, we approach the question of both phylogenetic stability and ancestry of signals by analyzing word form similarity, which serves as a proxy for cognacy. If it is a correct hypothesis that signals render words less prone to change and that they are prehistoric vestiges, then, after controlling for concept, symbol, and lineage, we would expect to find that the similarity among words is predicted by signals.

Phys.org summaries lack the detail needed for an informed critique.

Sep 13, 2016
Don't Believe

Absolute trash. Learn some languages, maniac.

also let's take a look at basque, shall we?

These conclusions are bullshit

Just go to the linked abstract and all your misconception about the 'valuelessness' of this work will be rectified (i.e. one click could have saved all of you plenty of typing)

Sep 15, 2016
How quick people are to dismiss new research without a shred of evidence to support their objections! So it's not just restricted to climate change denial.

This research does at least support my own unscientific observations of many words in the English language. I can't support my anecdotal evidence from other languages, except to say that it appears to me that the sound relationship is more common in words of Germanic origin.

The first instance of my noticing the relationship between sounds and meanings in English was in words to do with the nose having the common sound "sn-". This is quite a nasal sound anyway. Consider these words: sniff(le), snuff(le), snivel, snort(le), snout, snot, sneeze, schnozz, sneer, snigger, snooze, snitch, snook. Even words like snaffle and snag have origins related to the pointedness of the nose. Is this list really a result of coincidence?

Sep 16, 2016
thought provoking

Well we are all kin and humanity pretty much all thinks alike.
There is that lack of genetic diversity thing again....

Sep 18, 2016
"You" is unlikely to include sounds involving u ... r u truly this stupid ??

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